On the last Friday in March, the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism announced the staff of its California HealthCare Foundation Center for Health Reporting, launched in September 2009 after a short pilot phase.

David Westphal, an industry vet who was head of McClatchy’s Washington bureau from 1998 to 2008, will become the Center’s first editor-in-chief. The new team also includes a managing editor and three senior writers. The Knight Science Journalism Tracker’s Paul Raeburn criticized the group’s credentials, however, which touched off an interesting exchange between him and Westphal. It began when Raeburn noted that:

Only one of the five new hires is said to have any background in health reporting, and she seems to be more of an environmental writer than a health reporters … This hiring seems misguided. It’s like staffing a new reporting initiative to cover cricket with American reporters who’d never seen a game. They’d file something, I’m sure, but it wouldn’t be pretty. Nor would their stories benefit from any experience or insight into what they were covering.

Westphal sent a response to Raeburn the next day, which Raeburn highlighted in a second post at the Tracker:

Paul,

I think the world of trained science and health reporters, and the contributions to public understanding they bring. So I have no interest in an us vs. them argument.

But it’s important to lay out the mission of the Center for Health Reporting. It’s not medical science journalism. Our focus is health care and health-care policy as experienced in communities throughout California. It’s doctor shortages in Santa Cruz, hospital governance in San Diego County, firefighting techniques that affect public health in northern California, diabetes in the Central Valley, the wisdom of starting a medical school in Merced — all projects the center has completed in its early months, all deeply rooted in a sense of place in California, all done in strong partnerships with local media. These and other works have already had results. The Forest Service has changed the way it fights forest fires, for example. Medicare reimbursement rates have gotten new national attention. And we’re only getting started.

Your slap at our staff is off-base. We have a terrific team to take on this mission — reporters and editors with extensive experience in public policy at state, national and local levels, with expertise in environmental issues, demographics, immigration, natural disasters and so on. Perhaps just as important, they’re proven critical thinkers, digging reporters and great storytellers, all of which are also vital parts of our work. They will pinpoint health problems to be sure, but they’ll also think about possible solutions…

In the same post, Raeburn replied to Westphal:

David,

… You say that you don’t need health reporters because your mission is “health care and health-care policy,” not “medical science journalism.”

How would you divorce the two? How could you report on public health without reporting on the legitimacy of the scientific studies that give rise to public health policies and practices? Stories on diabetes, doctor shortages, and Medicare reimbursements all turn on whether the care involved is scientifically sound, or not.

Health journalists and science writers specialize in those areas and would bring a wealth of experience to the kinds of stories you’re doing. And it’s selling them short to suggest that all they cover is medical science. Many of them cover many of the subjects that you’re tackling.

I wish you all the best, but I think you’re missing something by not including science and health writers in the mix. You can’t cover health care policy without covering the science that underlies it; you risk missing something important.

And if you think I’m wrong, wait until you tackle the policies coming out of the stem cell initiative in California. Try doing that story without including medical science journalism.

While both men make good points, I have to side with Raeburn on this one. The Center really should have at least one experienced science/medical writer on staff. Nonetheless, Westphal is right—prior to his being hired as editor, the Center had already produced five solid reporting projects, some which dealt admirably with matters of science despite being carried out by reporters with no background in the field.

The Center’s self-stated mission is to “create partnerships with traditional and emerging media of all types across California to report on the most vexing health care issues facing the state: quality, access, and cost.” During a six-month pilot phase in 2008 and 2009, the Center produced the following works:

“Sowing Hope,” a three-part series in the Merced Sun-Star examining the University of California’s plans to build a new medical school in the San Joaquin Valley.

• A two-part series in the Fresno Bee documenting the diabetes epidemic in California’s farming communities and the difficulties residents face in obtaining proper treatment for the disease.

“Collision in Care,” a three-day, thirteen-story series in the Santa Cruz Sentinel that focused on the local exodus of primary care doctors and its effects on Medicare patients and other vulnerable populations.

• A multi-part series on conflict and competition among local hospitals in the north San Diego County area with the North County Times.

• A series with the Redding Record Searchlight on how the way fires are fought in the surrounding mountains affects the health of local residents.

I haven’t read every part of every series, but the ones on diabetes and fires certainly dealt admirably with their fair share of science. The diabetes series, written by the Fresno Bee’s Barbara Anderson and the Center’s Natalya Shulyakovskaya (who was not one among the permanent hires announced last week) performed an “analysis of state death records and other statistics” in order to determine that:

• Minorities are up to two times as likely as whites to die from diabetes and its complications.

• Less educated residents are more at risk. Almost half of those who die lack high school diplomas.

• The poor - regardless of ethnic background - are more likely to get the disease than other Valley residents.

Likewise, in the Record Searchlight series on fires, the Center’s Jocelyn Weiner (who is also not among the recent permanent hires), handled the scientific connections between fires and health with an laudable blend of aggressive but careful reporting. For instance, headlines such as “Mountain residents have no doubt smoke made the sick,” were balanced by others like, “There’s still much to learn about long-term health effects of last year’s fires.”

Neither Shulyakovskaya nor Weiner appear to have any particular training or long experience with science reporting. Prior to her work for the Center, Shulyakovskaya was an investigative reporter specializing in data analysis at The Orange County Register, according to a bio posted by the Western Knight Center for Specialized Journalism. Weiner spent five years at the Sacramento Bee and “specializes in narrative storytelling about social issues, including health, education, violence and poverty,” according to her blog.

Nonetheless, while a smart reporter with no particular experience in science writing can certainly handle a bit of science reporting, an outlet focused on health care coverage should have a specialist on staff. We shouldn’t doubt the current team’s ability to carry on the strong work during the Center for Health Reporting’s pilot phase, but neither should we doubt that an experienced science journalist would make it even stronger.

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Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.